Perry World House abruptly ended a scheduled event Wednesday on immigration policy and escorted guests off the stage after one of the speakers, former United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Director Thomas Homan, was met with dozens of student protesters.
Students wielding signs that read, "Abolish ICE" and "No one is illegal on stolen land," gathered inside and outside of Perry World House minutes before the “Detention and Deportation from Obama to Trump” event, which was scheduled to take place from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Before the protest, more than 500 students and alumni signed a petition demanding that Penn cancel the event because of controversial policies Homan implemented when he led ICE.
At about 4:45 p.m., protesters lined the outside of the building and sat in the event room filled with attendees. The students inside were chanting, “No hate. No fear. Immigrants are welcome here" and “Go home Homan."
An official standing in front of the audience attempted to talk about Penn’s First Amendment rights and the event's intention over the protesters, but they continued chanting.
At about 5 p.m., the speakers — including Homan, former Philadelphia City Solicitor Sozi Tulante, and former ICE Public Advocate Andrew Lorenzen-Strait — walked on stage as the chanting grew louder. Homan was chuckling and talking to Lorenzen-Strait, who was seated next to him. Fifteen minutes later, the speakers were escorted off the stage by an organizer, who announced the event was canceled.
Following the announcement, students cheered before officers escorted all attendees out of the building. More than a dozen students involved with the protest declined to be interviewed by The Daily Pennsylvanian.
"Before the event even began, chanting by some members of the audience made it impossible to hold a constructive conversation. Since our founding, Perry World House has been deeply engaged with the timely and sensitive issue of immigration," Perry World House Communications Director John Gans wrote in an email to the DP.
"Members of the Penn community may disagree with a particular speaker at these events, but having conversations about those differences is part of what makes universities such as Penn essential locations for free inquiry, free expression, debate, and dialogue," Gans added.
College junior Erin O'Malley, who participated in the protest, said she was not surprised the event was quickly shut down.
“There are a lot of people who are passionate at Penn," O'Malley said. "When all these people come together, things like that can definitely happen and usually does happen.”
Homan was appointed by President Donald Trump and served as ICE acting director from January 2017 until his retirement in June 2018. During his tenure, ICE implemented controversial policies that many say violated the rights of immigrant families, including the revocation of a policy that had allowed some critically ill undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States for medical treatment. Under former President Barack Obama, Homan oversaw thousands of border arrests. He also defended the Trump administration's policy of separating families at the border in the same month he retired.
Days before the event, a group of Penn alumni began circulating an online petition against Homan's scheduled visit.
"Under Homan, ICE continued to be a violent organization responsible for terrorizing immigrant communities, for the separation of immigrant families, and for the persistent violation of the human rights of immigrants and their loved ones," the petition read. "Consequently, inviting Homan as a guest speaker contradicts Penn’s claim of being a sanctuary campus that is committed to ensuring the well-being and safety of all of its students."
Despite the backlash, the University stood by its decision to invite Homan.
On Tuesday, University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy wrote in an email to the DP that Homan was still scheduled to speak. Perry World House also released a statement on its website Tuesday addressing the controversy and confirmed the event would continue.
The petition also called for Penn to no longer invite current or former ICE or Customs and Border Patrol officials to campus; to create a Perry World House advisory board made up of diverse students and faculty; and to form an immigrant support fund and pay the renewal fees of students, faculty, and staff under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Dozens of people from other universities also signed the petition, including students from Drexel University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Brown University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard University.
News Editor Manlu Liu contributed reporting.